My father was an abusive son-of-a-bitch, but don’t worry. I’m not going to bore you with a story you’ve heard a zillion times, a story that no longer has the power to outrage you. This story is about makeup. Not making-up, not exactly, but lip gloss and highlighter and eye-shadow and foundation, mascara and toner and rouge.
It’s a story about me and my mother and how on winter mornings just north of Berlin, New Hampshire, we would wait until my father left for his job at Freedom Chevrolet. It was then that Joanne—as my mother insisted I call her—would sit us both down in front of the vanity mirror in her bedroom and say something like, “I see a couple girls could use a makeover.”
Joanne had once worked for a funeral home over in Lancaster. A mortuary cosmetologist. It was her job to fix up the faces of dead people whose families insisted on open caskets: teenagers who’d been in car crashes, old people who’d frozen to death in their unheated homes, lumberjacks no longer able to outrun falling timber.
“Won’t be long before summer comes,” she’d promise from September to May. “You back up in Maine with your friends doing all that stuff you love.”
I did not love summer, nor the camp I was sent to every year, Camp Holy Spirit, where for eight weeks we took sweaty hikes pestered by blackflies, or sat inside and made lanyards in the shape of crucifixes. I was too withdrawn for friends, too shy to even open my mouth to praise the Lord in bonfire sing-alongs. But at least there my skin was natural and sunburned and—aside from the insect bites and the heat rash—as smooth as jelly over toast.
“The key is concealer,” Joanne would say as she applied the flesh-colored cream first to her own face and then to mine. She’d follow with a foundation stick—using it like a magic marker on a school whiteboard—then follow up with a powder blush she called “Cherry Temptation.” She’d move on to the eyes, the lips, the neck.
“Va-voom!” she’d say when she was done, but when I looked in the mirror all I ever saw was two people, one smiling almost ghoulishly, both of them made up like sidewalk mimes.
At school, no one ever said a thing. There was no teasing from the other students, no teachers preaching the hell that awaited a painted woman.
There was only the silence of a small, knowing community, the nods of people too powerless or too familiar with the situation itself, the constant looking toward the sky for some sign of the endless winter finally departing.